Why Hobbes would have enjoyed "You've Been Framed"by Ian Silvera / December 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Christmas and comedy have a well-established relationship. Morecambe and Wise re-runs, naughty cracker jokes, an endless stream of comedy DVD adverts. The relationship between comedy and philosophy is less well known.
But comedy has occasionally drawn inspiration from philosophy. Reaching into the archive, there’s Monty Python of course and Beyond the Fringe, and more recently The Simpsons and Ricky Gervais (UCL philosophy graduate, class of 1983) have explored explicitly philosophical issues.
But these examples are one-sided: comedians commenting on philosophy. What about the other way around? What do philosophers say about comedy?
Philosophers, being a disputatious bunch, have three competing theories of humour and laughter. The first, the so-called “superiority theory,” argues that our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people. Thomas Hobbes was the leading proponent of this model. He believed that “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves.”
Hobbes, if he were around today, would point to YouTube to prove his point. He would probably be a fan of the “fail” series of clips, which have racked up millions of views with their scenes of people falling flat on their face.
In 1709, Lord Shaftesbury introduced a new way of thinking about comedy. His “relief theory,” described humour as a tension-release m…